By Erin Carlson Mast
The “Lincoln shiver” is the term we used to describe a certain feeling people said they experienced at President Lincoln’s Cottage, even during the capital project when it felt more construction site than historic site. The shiver came at different times for different people, and came when story and place collided. For example, some experienced it when they heard the stories of what Lincoln was struggling with here and then ascended the same stairs and touched the same banister Lincoln touched — thinking of what was on his mind as he went to bed each night. Still others felt the shiver after the fact — as they went over their memories of what they heard and experienced here.
The museum field does a good job of tracking basic results, such as the number of visitors served per year or the number of repeat visitors. We certainly care about and track that information, but we have always cared more about the quality of the experience we provide. After all, repetition does not necessarily point to the depth of impact museums have on an individual. A few years ago, it became clear that our surveys were not capturing the depth of impact that, anecdotally, we seemed to be having. For example, visitors have reported feeling their minds opened, to being “substantively changed,” and to finding that they were reflecting on their experience at President Lincoln’s Cottage weeks, months, and even years later, even if they had been here just one time. Those are not easy things to measure. And so, we embarked on a groundbreaking study, the first phase of what we hope will be a multi-phase neuroscientific study. The first phase took over 18 months to complete, and we are pleased to share it with all of you now.
We could not have accomplished this without the expertise of Dr. Julio Bermudez, Professor of Architecture and Director of the Cultural Studies and Sacred Space graduate program at Catholic University and executive advisor to the Johns Hopkins University International Arts + Mind Lab at the JHU Brain Science Institute. A seed grant from the National Trust helped kick-start the effort. We are actively seeking funding for the next phase of this study, which has implications for President Lincoln’s Cottage, the fields of museums and preservation, and beyond.
Ms. Mast is CEO and Executive Director of President Lincoln’s Cottage.